The city’s proud of the Argo Cascades–and why not? Since it opened last spring, the aquatic playground has won two design awards and proven enormously popular. River trips increased 57 percent last year, despite low water much of last summer. Cheryl Saam, canoe liveries supervisor, and Colin Smith, head of the city’s parks and recreation department, both say they’ve heard nothing but overwhelming praise for the attraction–a wild, wet ride through nine narrow drops that takes paddlers from Argo Pond down to the main river stem just upstream of the Broadway Bridges.

“It’s absolutely transformed the river,” Saam enthuses, noting that many users haul their vessels back up to repeat the ride. On summer weekends, the Cascades are jam-packed. Cyclists wheel by on the newly paved Border-to-Border Trail, sunbathers loll on the promontories, and kayaks and tubes shoot the rapids like bumper cars on an extended water slide. The city is bracing for even more visitors this year, beefing up livery staff, buying more kayaks, and adding forty new parking spots off Longshore Drive.

On an afternoon in early May, a couple of pairs of twenty-something kayakers work their way downstream. Strong crosscurrents sometimes push their vessels sideways or spin them around. The paddlers work hard to steer nose first through the narrow drops, sometimes crashing into the rock abutments.

Watching them, Michael Hood shakes his head in dismay. Hood is a trained wilderness first responder who runs rock-climbing and canoe trips with his company, Vertical Ventures. He’s also consulted for government and private business on risk management. Hood, who walks the trail by the Cascades frequently, calls the watercourse a “carnival ride” and an “attractive nuisance”–and warns it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Four times last year, he says, he rescued people in the Cascades whose vessels had gotten wedged and/or swamped–including one woman in danger of drowning while pinned in an overturned kayak. As he watches this day, a river current propels a kayak from one drop straight toward a metal fence post sticking up out of the next pool. Turning at the last minute, the paddlers miss it by inches.

“There’s nothing like that in the Cascades,” says Cheryl Saam, when asked about the fence post. “If there was, we would know about it.” But the post had been there all last year, according to Hood and to David Johnson, a Superior Township resident who bikes alongside the route. Hood and Johnson also say there was another piece of metal–Johnson calls it “rebar”–near one of the chutes last year, but it was gone this spring. The fence post also disappeared–a few days after the Observer asked Saam about it in May.

Saam seems skeptical about Hood’s complaints. When told of his rescues, she responds: “We’ve never heard of anything like that. Why wouldn’t he come to the livery and tell us?” And parks and rec chief Colin Smith, told of the same incidents, says: “I’ve not gotten a single phone call complaining. If the public has concerns, we wish they would contact the staff, so we can improve the experience for everyone.”

Officials and livery workers say the overwhelmingly positive customer feedback speaks for itself: the verdict is all but unanimous–the Cascades are a blast. Smith says the only negative feedback he’s gotten is from people who “would like the Cascades to be harder.”

For all its facilities, from parks to softball fields to the liveries, the city uses incident reports filled out on the spot to track problems. Smith says he got only a half-dozen incident reports from the Cascades all last year, and most of them documented “cuts and scrapes,” primarily from tube renters who ignored the rule about wearing shoes and went through barefoot.

Saam admits paddlers sometimes go through the narrow drops sideways or backwards but says that’s part of the challenge. And, as has always been the case on the river, people can capsize, crash, run aground, or “get scared” and quit before their destination. In those cases, she says, other paddlers or onlookers from shore often pitch in to help. She relies primarily on the same Good Samaritans at the Cascades: since there are usually plenty of folks around there who can help, she feels it’s as safe or maybe even safer than the rest of the trip from Argo to Gallup Park.

The Cascades is a popular hit fashioned from a daunting crisis. As such, it engenders something of a look-what’s-fallen-into-our-laps grin among city officials enjoying the first blush of its astonishing success. They’re like kids who expected a lump of coal for Christmas but found a new bike under the tree.

Since the 1830s, the Huron has been dammed here. The present dam, built to supply Detroit Edison’s hydropower plant on Broadway, turns 100 this year. But Edison shut down the plant in 1959, turning the headrace feeding it into a dead end. Since then, its only use has been to provide paddlers with a way around Argo Dam. It was neither the easiest nor the prettiest stretch of a river trip, but after ducking under a low pedestrian bridge, they could make their way along the millrace to a steep portage where they could return to the river.

The portage was bothersome to all and difficult for some. And drained only by a small spillway at the end, the water in the headrace grew stagnant. What’s worse, it began seeping through the embankment. In 2004, a state safety inspection found the big dirt wall was badly eroding, raising the prospect of a catastrophic failure. Something had to be done.

A vigorous debate ensued over whether Argo Dam should be removed entirely. But well-organized supporters, led by the rowing community on Argo Pond, staved off the Huron River Watershed Council and other dam-removal advocates. Finally the state, which regulates dams, ordered the city to improve the toe drains along the embankment to prevent its collapse.

Within a city-public task force working on the problem, a new idea emerged: replace the headrace with a free-flowing channel. Besides its obvious benefits for paddlers, this solution would mean most of the embankment would no longer be part of the dam, wresting it from state control. After months of legal wrangling, the city and state signed a consent agreement in May 2010: the city could either fix the toe drains or replace the entire headrace with a channel of falling water.

In August 2010, the city requested proposals to design and build an “Argo headrace embankment reconstruction.” The RFP specified that the project “must create a canoe passage that is able to be traversed by novice paddlers.” Already, though, Cheryl Saam and others were advancing what Colin Smith calls “robust ideas” for making the new channel into not just a river bypass but an exciting water park.

Working under a tight deadline from the state, the city got just two proposals, and one was thrown out because it did not remove the portage. Meanwhile, three bids for the toe drain work estimated the cost at $707,000 to $829,000. So when one design for a new channel came in at $998,000, and with enthusiasm for the water park mounting, city officials fast-tracked it.

In short order, the parks advisory commission and the city council approved the design, by Gary Lacy of Recreational Engineering and Planning of Boulder, Colorado–the nation’s foremost in-stream designer. Supplying the muscle would be TSP Environmental of Livonia, while local firm Beckett/Raeder was the team’s landscape architect. The firms’ proposal called for a series of four pools connected by three long necks taking paddlers on a gradual twelve-foot descent over the 1,500 feet from the dam to the river just above Broadway.

Money was available in the parks budget, thanks to the 2006 parks maintenance and capital improvements millage–and the county chipped in $113,000 for a new bridge over the entrance. Once the state DEQ issued a permit in August 2011, construction began.

But when the Cascades opened last spring, the design had changed significantly from what city council had approved: instead of three longer, wider drops, there were nine much shorter, narrower drops, flanked by protruding rock dams. The resulting pools were much shorter than originally planned.

Brian Steglitz, a hydraulic engineer with the city and manager for the project, explains that the state believed the original design would make it harder for fish to swim upstream and wanted to make the drops less steep. In addition, he says, the team realized that at low water, there wouldn’t be enough current to carry vessels down the original wide spillways.

When the Cascades opened last spring, however, there was a big surprise: when the first canoeists went down the new waterway, there was a “rash of injuries,” according to a livery staffer.

“It was a bit more challenging than we’d thought,” Saam admits. A veteran canoe racer agrees–he says the chutes “are no joke,” and that if a canoe flips, paddlers may easily get “banged up on the rocks.” Though the RFP required that the waterway be usable by novice canoeists, the livery immediately stopped sending them through the Cascades. Renters can make the run in the livery’s kayaks, rubber rafts, and inner tubes–but not its canoes.

Those who own a canoe, however, can still try their luck. Mike Hood says he’s gone down several times in one of his vintage wood-and-canvas canoes. The guide says he’s run whitewater in that canoe with few problems, but in the Cascades, it was damaged twice. “In my opinion,” he says, “these ‘cascades’ are not fit for canoes most of the time.”

The city has done some “tweaking” since the Cascades opened, Saam says. Last year, rubber baffles were installed in one of the chutes, and in May, TSP shortened and widened the steep and bumpy exit to the Huron.

Colin Smith says he frequently visited the Cascades last year and that livery staffers were nearby to help anyone in distress. But Hood says he was the only one who helped the kayakers in trouble. He’d like to see the city post a lifeguard or other trained first responder to continually watch the Cascades. Not to do so, he says, is risking significant liability–which he fears may result in closing the feature entirely.

“You simply can’t mix poor design with inexperienced or novice paddlers with no supervision or instruction,” he says. “It is only a matter of time before something tragic, but completely foreseeable, is going to happen here.”

Hood loves outdoor adventures–it’s his business–but thinks the city’s attitude toward the Cascades is dangerously blase. “There are risks in any recreational pursuit,” says Hood. “It’s all about managing the risks.”

Saam insists that the city’s risk management measures are more than sufficient. She points out that first-timers are shown a one-minute “instructional video” of the Cascades trip at the Argo livery. In fact, it’s mainly a promotion for all the river rentals that briefly states you might capsize if you can’t handle your kayak.

Notices on the livery counter say renters must be “capable swimmers”–the current below the drops is strong enough to push people over if they try to wade. The notices also specify that the person in the stern of the kayak must be experienced in “steering a boat” and have made at least five previous trips in a kayak before going down the Cascades–ten if there’s high water on the Huron at the time. But of course there’s no way to confirm renters’ self-reports of their experience.

Saam further says staffers can instruct renters in paddle technique, and she confirms all renters must wear life preservers. Hood, however, says he’s seen small children riding the Cascades without life preservers–and says he has never seen anyone getting paddling instruction on the river. Asked about that, a livery staffer shrugs and says they just teach “basic paddling–nothing expert.”

Everyone renting a vessel at the Argo and Gallup liveries signs a “risk waiver”–the same waiver that’s been required for years, with no special new language for the Cascades trip.

With the Cascades a huge success, the city is looking for even more action on the Huron. This April, the city issued an RFP for a “whitewater play park” to be built in the main channel below Argo Dam. Colin Smith says that might please some of the folks who want the Cascades to be more challenging.

For canoeists, though, they’re already too challenging. Unable to navigate the Cascades, renters bound downriver now must walk a third of a mile to pick up their canoes near the Broadway Bridge. So the city is planning one more Argo improvement: a new portage, closer to the dam.